1902 Encyclopedia > Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac
French composer

HONORE DE BALZAC, perhaps the greatest name in the post-Revolutionary literature of France, was born at Tours in 1799, and died in 1850. His date thus corresponds with the whole period of the rise, the acme, and the decline of the Romantic school, to which he can scarcely, however, be said to have belonged. It is true that he was inspired by many of the influences that animated Victor Hugo and his followers. Like them he was much occupied by the study of the fantastic element in mediaeval art, so strongly opposed to the calm and limit of classical literature, like them he reproduced the remoter phases of life and passion, and thought that few subjects were so base or obscure as to be unworthy of artistic treatment. But there is something in the powerful personality of Balzac indicated by the colossal body, by the strong and sensual face, somewhat resembling the profile of the Emperor Nero, which preserved him from the mannerism of any school. He was never successful in reproducing the existence of the past, he was essentially the man of his own day, and La Comedie Humaine is as much the picture of the 19th, as the Divina Commedia is of the 13th century. The passions that move his characters are the intense desire of boundless wealth, of luxury, of social distinction; and though here and there his financiers, his journalists, his political intriguers, his sordid peasantry, are relieved by the introduction of some pure figure, like that of Eugenie Grandet, of David, or of Eve, there are only too many elaborate studies of creatures sunk below the surface of humanity, the embodiments of mfinite meanness and nameless sin. He was merely " the secretary of society," he said, and "drew up the inventory of vices and virtues." His ambition was, " by infinite patience and courage, to compose for the France of the 19 th century that history of morals which the old civilizations of Rome, Athens, Memphis, and India, have left untold." The consequence of this ambition is, that Balzac's voluminous romances have too often the air of a minute and tedious chronicle, and that the contemporary reader is wearied with a mass of details about domestic architecture, about the stock exchange, and about law, which will prove invaluable to posterity.

Balzac's private history, which may be traced through many passages of his novels, was a strange and not a happy one. He was early sent from his home in Tours to the college of Vend6me, where he neglected the studies and sports of childhood to bury himself in mystic books and mystic reveries. He has told the story of his school life in Louis Lambert, how he composed a theorie de la volontS, a theory which was to complete the works of Mesmer, Lavater, Gall, and Bichat. This promising treatise was burned by one of the masters of the school; and Balzac, falling into bad health, returned home. The next stage in his education was a course of study at the Sorbonne, and of lectures on law. In the offices of avouet and notaries he picked up his knowledge of the by-ways of chicanery,—knowledge which he uses only too freely in his romances. Nature did not mean Balzac for an advocate; he was constant in the belief in his own genius, a belief which for many years he had all to himself, and his family left him to work and starve, on the scantiest pittance, in a garret of the Rue Lesdiguieres. There followed ten years of hard toil, poverty, experiments in this and that way of getting a living. These struggles are described in Facino Cane, in the Peau de Chagrin, and in a series of letters to the author's sister, Madame de Surville. Balzac found " three sous for bread, two for milk, and three for firing " suffice to keep him alive, while he devoured books in the library of the Arsenal, copied out his notes at night, and then wandered for hours among the scenes of nocturnal Paris. " Your brother," he writes to Madame de Surville, " is already nourished like a great man,—he is dying of hunger." He tried to make money by scribbling many volumes of novels without promise, and borrowed funds to speculate in the business of printing. Ideas which have since made other men's fortunes failed in Balzac's hands, and he laid the foundations of those famous debts which in later life were his torment and his occupation. At length appreciation came, and with appreciation what ought to have been wealth. Balzac was unfortunately as prodigal of money as of labour; he would shut himself up for months, and see no one but his printer; and then for months he would disappear and dissipate his gains in some mysterious hiding-place of his own, or in hurried travelling to Venice, Vienna, or St Petersburg. As a child he had been a man in thought and learning ; as a man ha was a child in caprice and extravagance. His imagination, the intense power with which he constructed new combinations of the literal facts which he observed, was like the demon which tormented the magician with incessant demands for more tasks to do. When he was not working at La Comedie Humaine, his fancy was still busy with its characters; he existed in an ideal world, where some accident was always to put him in possession of riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Meantime he squandered all the money that could be rescued from his creditors on sumptuous apparel, jewels, porcelain, pictures. His excesses of labour, his sleepless nights, his abuse of coffee undermined his seemingly indestructible health. At length a mysterious passion for a Russian lady was crowned by marriage; the famous debts were paid, the visionary house was built and furnished, and then, " when the house was ready, death entered." Balzac died at the culmination of his fame, and at the beginning, as it seemed, of the period of rest to which he had always looked forward.

It is impossible to enter on a detailed criticism of Balzac's novels. In them he scales every height and sounds every depth of human character,—from the purity of the mysterious Seraphitus Seraphita, cold and strange, like the peaks of her northern Alps, to the loathsome sins of the Marnefs, whose deeds should find no calendar but that of Hell. In the great divisions of his Comedie, the scenes of private and of public life of the provinces and of the city, in the philosophic studies, and in the Contes Drolatiques, Balzac has built up a work of art which answers to a mediaeval cathedral. There are subterranean places, haunted by the Vautrins and "Filles aux yeux d'or" there are the seats of the money-changers, where the Nucingens sit at the receipt of custom; there is the broad platform of everyday life, where the journalists intrigue, where love is sold for hire, where splendours and miseries abound, where the peasants cheat their lords, where women betray their husbands; there are the shrines where pious ladies pass saintly days; there are the dizzy heights of thought and rapture, whence falls a ray from the supernatural light of Swedenborg; there are the lustful and hideous grotesques of the Contes Drolatiques. Through all swells, like the organ-tone, the ground-note and mingled murmur of Parisian life. The qualities of Balzac are his extraordinary range of knowledge, observation, sympathy, his steadfast determination to draw every line and shadow of his subject, his keen analysis of character and conduct. His defects are an over-insistance on detail, which hampers and bewilders rather than aids the imagination of his readers ; his tortured style, " a special language forged out of all the slangs, all the terminologies of science, of the studio, the laboratory, the coulisses, his fondness for dwelling on the morbid pathology of human nature. With all these defects, and with the difficulty of judging any one of his tales separately, because each is only a fragment in the development of the immense Comedie Humaine, Balzac holds a more distinct and supreme place in French fiction than perhaps any English author does in the same field of art. (A. L.)

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